Review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo turned up on my radar when I started seeing posts about the book on Instagram with a variety of covers. I soon learned that the book has been translated into more than a dozen languages, sold millions of copies in South Korea (where it was first written and published), and even inspired a film of the same title.

And if that wasn’t enough to pique my interest, I also learned that the book did a lot to fuel the struggle for gender equality and the #metoo movement in South Korea. The story of Kim Jiyoung depicts the pervasive, incessant discrimination against women in South Korea in the home, workplace, and public spheres, and the negative impacts that discrimination has on one woman’s self-worth and mental health. Needless to say, I think the issues touched on in this novel are important, complex, and timely.

However, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t as swept up in Kim Jiyoung’s story as I expected to be – after all, her life is rather mundane, and that’s a big part of the point Cho Nam-Joo is making in this story. But at the same time, I couldn’t ignore that Kim Jiyoung was hard to feel close to as a reader, and at times the writing in this story feels almost clinical (not to give away the twist at the ending. 🙂 But there’s a lot here to unpack, so I have to ask: did you read this one? What did you make of it?

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold

The answer: One. Hundred. Percent.

I have had How Much of These Hills is Gold on my TBR list for months, and I’m kicking myself now for putting it off even that long. I think C Pam Zhang does an incredible job in this novel of developing both characters and plot.

If you’ve read a few of my other reviews, you’ve probably noticed a pattern: I love books that subtly touch on very important, complex themes or topics. Themes like family, love, race, gender, and the American dream – all of which play a part in this stunning story of one immigrant family’s struggle during the California gold rush.

And if it wasn’t enough to write a gripping story with fascinating characters, C Pam Zhang also blew me away with the elegance of her prose, which dips at time into being borderline poetry. Basically, no matter what you’re looking for in a novel (craft, a good story, memorable characters, etc.) you’ll find it in this incredible book.

Fran Lebowitz: Essays vs. Docuseries

I didn’t know of Fran Lebowitz until recently, when I watched the docuseries Pretend It’s A City on Netflix. Several friends recommended this series to me, thinking I would love it, and they were so right. The series is really just a collection of conversations with writer Fran Lebowitz, who is hysterically funny, mostly on the topic of New York City.

Naturally, after enjoying the series so much, I was keen to look at some of Lebowitz’s writing, and so I picked up The Fran Lebowitz Reader, which is comprised of her two published books: Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. Both are collections of short, humorous, non-fiction essays, and one thing I really enjoyed was the brevity of these short pieces – I could easily fit short reads on short breaks from work or during Hulu commercials.

And yet, I have to admit that I didn’t find Lebowitz’s short essays quite as entertaining as her interviews. Of course, Pretend It’s A City was filmed many years after the publication of Lebowitz’s books, so perhaps her humor or viewpoints had changed or matured in a way that appeals to me. But for me, The Fran Lebowitz Reader came off slightly more silly and perhaps slightly less cynical than Pretend It’s A City. That said, there are certainly a few comic gems in the written collection, and both the docuseries and the book proved to be, for me at least, an entertaining and close depiction of life in New York City.

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a book about loss, grief, and Didion’s slow return to a new “normal” after the death of her husband. It is not a book about gratitude.

But a state of deep gratitude is exactly the “magical thinking” that this book led me to. Because I have simply never experienced the kind of loss or grief that Didion is dealing with in these pages, and I have never been more aware or grateful for that. I can’t pretend to understand or identify, but I can certainly appreciate the vulnerability that Didion shares, and the comfort her story has brought to thousands of readers.

Because of my , I must admit that parts of this book failed to truly resonate with me. At times, even, I felt like Didion was bordering on repetitive or off-topic. But Didion makes it clear that this is part of the point. That is, Didion’s “year of magical thinking” is really a year of not being able to think clearly – at least not in the way that she did prior to her husband’s death. And, Didion seems to say, that’s okay. Grieving, she explains, is nothing like what we’re taught to expect.

I hope it is a very long, long time before I need to read these memoirs again, before I need the comfort and solidarity that they offer. But I am filled with gratitude, knowing that this book will be there when I do, because I know I’ll turn to it then and find Didion’s wisdom as timeless and perceptive as so many others have.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

I’ve known the name Holden Caulfield – known him to be the protagonist and unreliable narrative of The Catcher in the Ryefor years and years. It’s one of the books that my professors in college would reference without hesitance, sure that everyone had read at some point.

Only somehow, I hadn’t. Until now (and I’ll add here that my husband was so shocked I hadn’t read this classic that he went out and got it for me).

Within the first few pages, I realized how many assumptions I had already formed about this book. And in fact, the ways that the novel actually ruptures those assumptions is precisely what made it so interesting to me. (and boy, was it interesting). So, for this book review, I wanted to call out my own assumptions and the ways that J.D Salinger ruptures them.

First, I knew Holden Caulfield to be considered an “unreliable narrator” but I never guessed that he would be so aware his own capricious nature. But in fact, he’s very self-aware. He says himself that he’s a liar, and that his mood can change suddenly. But because he himself acknowledges his inability control these changes, the reader finds themselves sympathizing with Holden, rather than blaming or resenting him.

Second, I expected a story about a young man, but what Holden Caulfield really offers us is the story of a generation. The truth is, not a whole lot happens in the plot of this narrative. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that it’s not always clear what Holden is looking for, what he needs, or what he wants. But I think that’s the point: he doesn’t know, and perhaps many of his generation didn’t know. Amidst the abundance that characterized America post WW2, Holden’s outlook and mindset seems to directly challenge the notions of the American dream as perpetuated by Hollywood and the general society.

Finally, I expected this “great American classic” to employ the formal, dated language that we (too often) associate with classics. But there is none of that here. In fact, I would argue that Salinger breaks every “rule” we’ve ever been taught in our English classes about what makes “good writing.” Holden’s language is extremely repetitive, often crass or low-brow, and sometimes downright ridiculous. And yet, that same language feels authentic and familiar in a way that (it seems) a piece of “classic literature” rarely is. I can only imagine that, especially for young readers, this would be incredibly illuminating in terms of what “good writing” is, and what a “good story” embodies.

Through Holden’s story and voice, Salinger showed readers that, in fact, the American novel didn’t have to look or sound like anything we’d seen before. And maybe, just maybe, it could even look and sound like us.

The Whispering House – A “Beach Read” for 2021

As Spring Break fast approaches, I’ve been seeing a lot of books being marketed as “Beach” or “Spring Break” reads, and have been thinking about what those terms really mean. As it turns out, I’m not first to investigate…

In 2019, the New Yorker acknowledged that the term is controversial – not everyone has the same definition and not everyone likes the categorization. But when Book Riot took a shot at the definition in 2020, landing on terms like “light reading”, “compulsively readable”, “mass appeal”, and “accessible,” they were more aligned with my own understanding of the “Beach Read” category (though I would also like to acknowledge that term as somewhat problematic, often “dripping with sexist assumptions” or assumed to not be “particularly intellectually stimulating”, to cite Book Riot).

When I recently read The Whispering House, by Elizabeth Brooks, I couldn’t help but think of this as a sort of 2021 beach read: characterized by accessible language, familiar characters, and a balance between romance and mystery that keeps you turning pages but doesn’t make you work too hard. And who doesn’t need a book like that, once in a while? Admittedly, I typically go for books that are a little more “academic” – like classics or literary fiction, books that win Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, that drive tough conversations in social and literary circles. My inclination isn’t usually to reach for a beach read. But sometimes, you need a little (Spring) break.

Also, I’ll just add that if there is a “Beach Read” of 2021, The Whispering House feels right. I mean, it’s got all the elements of a good social distancing story: extreme isolation in what may or may not be a haunted house, sick people quarantined in their rooms, plenty of scrounging when the groceries run out, and let’s not forget all the characters that get a little obsessed with their new hobbies (not bread-making though, thank God).

Additional Links:

Get the book

The New Yorker: The Invention of the Beach Read

Book Riot: What Makes a Book a Beach Read

Historical Fiction You Need to Read: The Nickel Boys

Recently, I had a conversation with someone a generation older than me about a non-fiction book they were reading (I forget which one… It doesn’t matter for my point here, except that I want to read it), and at least three times the person said, “They just never taught us that side of history when I was in school.”

That conversation was on my mind the entire time I was reading The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead.

Since my 11th grade AP History course (shout out to Ms. Bailey!), when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I’ve been continuously discovering the ways in which history has been told “by the conquerors”, as people say. Oppressors might be a more appropriate word, but the point remains the same: some histories are routinely, institutionally ignored.

But for me, no offense to AP History, it’s really been my love for fiction (especially historical fiction) that has illuminated the realities of who’s history gets told. And that brings me, at last, to the book at hand.

The Nickel Boys is a book based on true, horrifying events they don’t tell you about in grade school; a kind of historical fiction that simultaneously captivates and enrages. It follows one boy’s experience in a segregated school for boys’ reform, and for me, it provided yet another example of how some history is intentionally perpetuated while others are swept under the rug.

And yet, despite how infuriating this untold history is, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enthralled cover to cover. I could hardly put this story down, as much as I wanted it (or anything like it) to have never happened. That is, The Nickel Boys is incredibly powerful not only for the historical truths that it reveals, but also for Whitehead’s capacity for storytelling. He invigorates this story with relatable characters and moving friendships, with beautiful and skillful prose.

It’s on ever best-seller list for a reason. It won a Pullitzer Prize for a reason. It’s incredible – quite simply, a must read.

My Reading Adventure: The Hours

I just finished The Hours, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, which has been on my TBR list for years. But I never got around to it because, until recently, I hadn’t got around to a necessary pre-read: Mrs. Dalloway (or so I thought, read my recent blog review on Mrs. Dalloway here).

But finally, after seeing that Mrs. Dalloway was the most recent pick for Knopf Doubleday’s #howhaveInotreadthis book club, and that Michael Cunningham would lead the book club discussion, I finally decided I couldn’t put off reading Mrs. Dalloway and the Hours any longer.

And I am so glad I finally read these. Not only are both books fantastic for so many reasons (beautiful prose, profound themes, refreshing style and structure) but Cunningham’s breakdown of Mrs. Dalloway, which is still available on Youtube, literally brought me to tears. Additionally, his analysis of Mrs. Dalloway illuminated nuances and meaning in The Hours that I hadn’t picked up on – it helped me better understand The Hours as so much more than just a retelling or historical fictional, and more as a modern day commentary or reflection on the themes and messages of Mrs. Dalloway (on joy and sadness, on life and death, on success and failure).

Oh, and I can’t end without saying that I also took the time to watch the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of The Hours, which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend. It stars Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore, and is incredibly faithful to Michael Cunningham’s original plot.

And if you needed yet another form of media to combine with this wonderful literary adventure, I’d recommend listening to Phillip Glass’s motion picture soundtrack / score for this The Hours. I’ve played it while writing or studying for many years, and was glad to finally watch the film that inspired it.

So this was my enlightening, fun, bookish adventure: I read Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. I tuned into the Knopf Doubleday book club discussion of both on Youtube. I watched The Hours (film) and listened to The Hours (soundtrack).

And in the end I would ten for ten recommend them all.

You’re In Luck

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of all things Irish. I mean… whiskey, potatoes, luck. What’s not to love? And at the top of my favorite Irish things is, of course, the rich literary tradition of Ireland. So, this St. Patty’s Day, I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to pass along some of my favorite books by Irish authors.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By James Joyce.
You can’t roam an Irish town without passing a bookstore, and you won’t see a bookstore without Joyce in the window display. But while the modernist style he introduced marked a turning point for Western literature, it can be damn hard to read. So if you’re new to Joyce, start with this coming of age tale (based on Joyce’s own life) – it’s not only powerful and lovely, but one of his more approachable works.

The Last September. By Elizabeth Bowen.
This is a book for lovers of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but with an Irish twist. Or rather, with an Anglo-Irish twist. That is: this book recounts the experience of the aristocratic Irish class of wealthy land-owners that were loyal to the British crown in the years before Ireland gained independence. So it has all the marks of your classic romantic novel: class, marriage, and uncertainty. But with some good Irish politics and history thrown in.

Murphy. By Samuel Beckett.
Be warned: this difficult book will have you confused most of the time. And that’s pretty intentional on Beckett’s part, since he is, after all, depicting the life of a mentally-unstable man who gets a job working at an asylum. Another perk: when you’re not confused, you’ll be laughing to the point of tears. And if / when you do finally piece together these wild and crazy scenes, they are ones you will never forget.

Graveyard Clay. By Mairtin O’Cadhain.
If you’re detecting a theme after these first four books, it’s probably this: their difficult reads. And this is no exception (don’t worry , we’re coming up to some contemporary fiction that, I promise, goes a bit easier on the brain). In fact, this book was deemed so difficult to translate from it’s original Irish language text, that Irish presses refused to publish translations until just a few years ago. But like so many famous Irish novels, this book is a truly fresh and innovative take on literature and the things writing is capable of…

Reading in the Dark. By Seamus Deane.
A reading of Irish literature – and especially of Irish history – isn’t complete without consideration of “The Troubles”, or the period of religious conflict that plagued Northern Ireland throughout the late twentieth century. This novel (based loosely on Deane’s own life) is one of my all-time favorite books and is a stunning, haunting, and powerful depiction of one family’s struggles, sorrows, and secrets in the midst of the troubles.

Milkman. By Anna Burns.
While we’re on the subject of The Troubles, I can’t forget this stunning novel that came out just a few years ago. We’re back to the category of hard-to-read, Irish novels, but the intensity of Anna Burns’ language and the intensity of the plot will have you hooked start to finish, and like Reading in the Dark, this book will leave you with a deeper understanding of the impacts of The Troubles on the people who lived through them.

The Master. By Colm Toibin.
Ordinarily, I might choose Brooklyn as my top-recommended Toibin novel, but I wanted to highlight this often-overlooked work, which offers a fictionalized portrayal of Henry James. This book is really one for literary buffs, and the more familiar you are with James’ own works, the better. But even without that background, Toibin’s stunning control of language and narrative throughout this novel is simply impossible to ignore.

Normal People. By Sally Rooney.
This story is about exactly what you might guess, based on the cover: two normal people. And yet, boring as that may sound, this story of two young, normal people is simply captivating, nearly impossible to put down (I think it was the first novel I every read in just a day). Rooney’s capacity for developing characters is uncanny. You will get all the feels with this book and then you’ll quickly be onto Rooney’s other beloved novel, Conversations with Friends.

Academy Street. By Mary Costello.
Maybe it’s because I’m Irish-American myself, but this modern-day immigrant story struck a cord with me. It has one of the most memorable twists I can remember and is one of few books that has ever made me literally cry. It is easy to read, but so lovely and heart-wrenching, that I definitely recommend grabbing the tissues before you start.

Room. By Emma Donoghue.
I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and it’s even more rare I find one to be truly exceptional, but Room is exactly that. An exceptional thriller. If in the first few pages, you’re thrown off by the strange style and voice, keep reading. If you’re like me, that incredible voice will ultimately be the most memorable thing about this book – which is saying a lot considering the intensity of the narrative. There’s a reason the film was such a hit – this is simply an unforgettable story.

Alright. There you have it – a list of books by Irish authors that will leave any reader feeling lucky as a leprechaun. But before I go, I do want to mention a couple of novels that are notably absent from my list, and why.

Ulysses. By James Joyce. … It’s just too difficult to read. Too much to recommend to, well, anyone. Go for Portrait of An Artist instead.

Angela’s Ashes. By Frank McCourt. … Brutal in it’s depiction of an Irish town, this book was marketed as a memoir but there has been plenty of controversy as to where McCourt was honest and where he wasn’t. I’m still not sure about it.

A Portrait of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. … First of all, you’ve probably read it or at least know the story, and secondly, it’s so long. So so long.

Say Nothing. By Patrick Keefe. … Because, to my chagrin, I haven’t read it. Yet. But it is on my TBR list. I’m including it here just so you know I haven’t been under a rock for the past few years. I know I’m behind.

Poetry. In general. I didn’t know where to start and I haven’t read enough collective works, but I would be embarrassed not to briefly mention at least William Butler Yeats, Eavan Boland, and Seamus Heaney here.

The Memorable Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve been meaning to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for ages, and I seem to recall starting several times before putting it down a few pages in. So I was very surprised to see my handwriting in the margins throughout my copy of the book. Apparently, I had read it cover to cover, and apparently, it was all over my head in those days – judging from the notes themselves (high school me wrote down a lot of “huh?” and “umm?”), and also from the fact that I didn’t remember much about the book at all.

So as I went through this time, I had two questions in mind. First, was this book really, in fact, as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? And (secondly) if so, why didn’t I remember it?

And I definitely got both answers.

What this book as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? Yes. A resounding yes. In particular, I thought it was memorable for two main reasons. First, this book is amazing because it was clearly so ahead of its time in it’s depiction of certain subject matter, like the disturbing depiction of PTSD and negligent practices used to treat it, or the dynamics of class relations in a post-WWI society.

Secondly, I’ll never forget the fresh, modernist style employed in Woolf’s writing. I’ve heard her compared to James Joyce for her use of stream-of-consciousness, but I think that Woolf doesn’t go quite as far as Joyce, and for me it was easier to follow. Mrs. Dalloway, specifically, has a cinematic quality that I haven’t encountered in a novel before (one minute, you’re behind the camera, following a character through the park, then you pass another character on the sidewalk and turn the camera to follow them… until gradually you have an idea of all the characters, all the critical places, the ways their lives intersect). And Woolf’s fantastic style leads me to my second question.

So then, why didn’t I remember it? Well, quite simply, this is not an easy read. It was over my teenage reading level (if its being compared to Joyce, you know it’s not a piece of cake to read). Following this narrative takes a lot more focus and effort than most contemporary best-sellers, and even more than other classics written in the same era. But also, as I mentioned before, Woolf takes on some very heavy and complex themes in this book (e.g. PTSD, class, love, death, time, etc.) and she does it with extreme subtly – there are no grandiose speeches that clarify character perspectives, there are no overt demonstrations of character transformation. The reader has to read closely to pick up on these themes and Woolf’s messages related to each.

All in all, this is a lovely piece of literature and it’s no wonder to me now why it is considered by so many to be an essential work within the Western literary cannon. The last thing I’ll say is that I was inspired to read this book after learning of the A.A. Knopf publishing house’s #howhaveinotreadthis book club. In February, Mrs. Dalloway was their book club pick, and the month’s book club host was Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours (my next read!), and you can still find the book club discussion on youtube!

Resources:
Buy the books (Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours).
#HowHaveINotReadThis Book Club discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.

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